Nurses call for better PPE to protect against new Covid-19 variants

23 January 2021, 07:53

Nursing leaders want higher grade masks to protect against new Covid-19 strains
Nursing leaders want higher grade masks to protect against new Covid-19 strains. Picture: PA

By Asher McShane

Nursing leaders are calling on the Government to carry out an urgent review of whether better PPE is needed to protect against highly transmissible new strains of coronavirus.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has written to the Government and joined forces with the British Medical Association (BMA) to write to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) after members raised fears they have inadequate personal protective equipment (PPE).

READ MORE: Scientists call for 'prolonged' lockdown to deal with new Covid-19 variants

At present all nurses wear standard surgical masks, but the RCN wants all NHS staff to be given higher-grade face masks, called FFP2 or FFP3 masks.

The RCN said it was aware that some NHS trusts are using higher grade face masks in all parts of their hospitals, while others use standard face masks, thereby creating a "postcode lottery" for nursing staff.

RCN chief executive and general secretary Dame Donna Kinnair said nurses were concerned that the standard face mask may not be effective in protecting against new strains of the virus and possible airborne spread in healthcare settings.

The College is calling for a review of infection control guidance and for all NHS staff to be given the higher grade of PPE as a precaution pending the outcome.

Dame Donna said: "The Government's silence on this issue is creating a postcode lottery for nursing staff whereby some working on wards have access to the higher-grade face masks and others do not.

"It must stop dragging its feet on this issue. Nursing staff need to have full confidence that they are protected.

"Staff picking up this virus at work are angered at any suggestion they have stopped following the rules - this is down to the new variant and the dangerous shortage of adequate protection."

In a letter to Jo Churchill, minister for prevention, public health and primary care, Dame Donna said staff were "aware that fluid repellent surgical face masks and face coverings, as currently advised in most general healthcare settings and patients' homes, are not protective against smaller infective aerosols despite the Government video outlining risks of infective aerosols in the air."

In a further letter to Sarah Albon, chief executive of the HSE, and signed by Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the BMA council, Dame Donna said: "In the absence of clarity on the reasons behind the new variants' increased infectivity, we are calling for the HSE to take a precautionary approach and to use your role as a regulator to ensure employers and those developing national guidance meet and understand their responsibilities."

She added: "Adequate supplies of PPE that meet the required specifications are vital to support nursing staff to do their jobs safely.

"Without support to use suitable PPE, nursing staff are putting their own lives, and the lives of their colleagues, families and patients, at risk."

In the letter, the RCN cites NHS data showing a 22% rise in the average number of health care staff off due to Covid-19 in the first week of this month compared with the last week in December.

From December 31 to January 6 an average of 41,641 employees were off each day, up from 34,210 for the period December 24 to 30.